Worker suicides bring home need to treat employees with empathy

Paul Yip says the young migrants who prop up China's manufacturing success should not be treated as mere machines. Doing so can have tragic results, as two recent suicides remind us

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 May, 2013, 4:45am

The recent reports of the suicide of two young Foxconn workers reminds us of some neglected issues facing an emerging China, namely, how to care for the increasing number of young migrant workers in cities. They are more educated than previous generations but have limited experience of dealing with life's adversities. Their mental well-being is therefore sometimes at risk.

These are the generation who grew up under the one-child population policy. They have been protected, sometimes overprotected. Their parents have tried to provide them with the best education, to give them a head start. But, at the same time, they have cosseted their children, thus depriving them of life's trials and failures that would help make them stronger and more resilient.

An estimated 120 million young people aged under 30 are part of this floating population. They work in different kinds of jobs, mainly in China's coastal regions. Every year, they return home for the Lunar New Year, creating what some have called the largest annual mass movement of people in the world.

These young people provide the constant supply of cheap, quality labour that sustains China's economic development.

Yet, in most cases, their well-being has been neglected or ignored; they are treated as commodities - valued only for their labour in the production process - rather than as human beings. Foxconn, the world's largest contract manufacturer, a listed company that counts Apple and Dell among its customers, employs more than 400,000 workers in Shenzhen alone, mainly young migrants.

A spate of suicides at Foxconn during a five-month period in 2010 triggered a public outcry at the working conditions and, as a result, the company moved to improve things, mainly by raising wages.

However, it seems that more money doesn't really rectify the deficiencies of the working environment: monotonous and routine work leads to a disconnection among workers that goes against the aspirations and preferences of most twenty-somethings. Pressure to meet quotas, no proper rest periods and a policy of no talking; all are not conducive to enhancing the mental well-being of any worker.

Studies have suggested that those who killed themselves might have had mental health and/or relationship problems not directly related to work. Yet there's no denying that a disconnected and pressurised work environment doesn't help a person who is struggling to cope with personal problems. There have also been claims that the company fired workers with suicidal tendencies.

For any company, corporate social responsibility is not just about how much you donate to charity; it is the responsibility of every company to make genuine efforts to improve employees' working environment and be responsible for their well-being. Any responsible employer has a duty to provide a safe working environment, and it extends beyond the physical aspect.

In Japan, there have been many documented cases of overworked Japanese killing themselves because of stress, and in some cases courts have awarded damages to affected families. The government is now looking at legislation to reduce such cases, possibly by introducing limits on overtime and health checks for workers, for example.

Unfortunately, the labour laws on the mainland - and in Hong Kong - don't provide adequate support for these hidden heroes who have sustained the nation's spectacular growth.

Our research also suggests that suicides can sometimes be the result of the "copycat effect" of cases reported in the media. During the 2010 Foxconn suicides, the Chinese government banned reports on the scandal and restricted internet searches, citing the negative influence of such reports on suicides as a reason.

Such a move might have been useful to stop the copycat effect, but, in the end, changes in social policy to improve migrants' working and living conditions are needed. Reform of the hukou household registration system, and the welfare and education system are long overdue.

For the government, let's hope that the latest reports of suicides are a wake-up call. For Foxconn and the like, it should be a reminder that a more humanist approach will work better. Indeed, there are reports that the company is relaxing its "no talking" policy during working hours.

Beyond such moves, companies should help to provide support to the vulnerable, especially if their problems are work-induced. Multinationals that can pay Chinese workers so little should remember that they can contract out the work, but not their responsibilities. Every person employed to produce a company's products should be treated with dignity.

By exercising control on our greed and learning to be more empathetic, we can create a better world for everyone. Protecting the weak and vulnerable is not only an investment; it is the best insurance for our future.

Paul Yip is a professor of social work and social administration, and director of the Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, at the University of Hong Kong